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Paulanne Simmons

The Heart of Rock and Roll Rocks

The Heart of Rock and Roll
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
James Earl Jones Theatre
138 West 48 Street
Opened April 22, 2024
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons May 7, 2024

Billy Harrigan Tighe, McKenzie Kurtz, Zoe Jensen and the Company.
Photo by Matthew Muphy

Let me confess. Before entering the James Earl Jones Theatre on May 7, I had never heard of Huey Lewis or the News. But after seeing the musical, The Heart of Rock and Roll, inspired by the band, Huey Lewis and The News, and featuring songs from their catalog, I was impressed by the music, the dance, and the talent and enthusiasm of the cast.

The real story of the band’s formation and success is not quite as romantic as the one told in the musical. In 1978, Lewis, who had already sung and played the harmonica with a group called Clover, joined with Sean Hopper, also from Clover, and Bill Gibson, Johnny Colla and Mario Cipollina from a group called Soundhole to from a new group named Huey Lewis and The American Express.

In 1980, the band, now joined by guitarist Chris Hayes, released their first studio album, which, fearing a lawsuit from the financial service corporation, they self-titled Huey Lewis and The News. They were successful throughout the 80s and early 90s, but after the band changed its lineup several times and Newton developed an ear disease, they stopped touring.

The musical, directed by Gordon Greenberg, with a book by Jonathan A. Abrams and choreography by Lorin Latarro, tells the story of a band that’s been trying to make it big for ten years. It’s 1987, and Bobby Stivic (Corey Cott) is so disheartened he has become an assembly line worker at  Stone Incorporated, a cardboard factory in Milwaukee.

But if Bobby has given up on become a rock legend, he does have ambitions as a businessman. He dreams of joining the Stone Incorporated sales department. At first his own mistakes lead to his boss, Chuck Stone (John Dossett), firing him. But Bobby doesn’t give up. He makes his way to a major trade convention at the Drake Hotel, in Chicago. And with the help of the boss’s daughter, Cassandra (McKenzie Kurtz), he gets a favorable response to his business proposals from prospective client Otto Fjord (Orville Mendoza), the owner of a Swedish furniture company called Idea.

Fjord wants Bobby and Cassandra to head the two companies’ future projects together. And Bobby must now decide: will it be the business or the band? It turns out, Bobby isn’t the only one in this show to face such decisions. Indeed Chuck Stone gave up baseball to join the cardboard business. And Stone Incorporated’s head of Human Resources, Roz (Tamika Lawrence), who tells Bobby you can’t ride two horses with one ass, has given up her own dreams of singing with a band.

Bobby and Cassandra are increasingly attracted to each other. But their romance is complicated by the reappearance of Cassandra’s ex-boyfriend, Tucker (Billy Harrigan Tighe), a self-assured WASP in love with himself and money. So Cassandra, too, must make up her mind.

The plot may not be earth-shattering. And the characters may be cartoonish. But they do provide a sturdy base for lots of goofy humor and much truly engaging song and dance. The dance numbers feature stomping on Bubble Wrap, a dream ballet in which Cassandra imagines how awful married life would be with Tucker, and a chorus line made up of bodybuilders led by a Richard Simmons lookalike. What’s more, the actors are all given the chance to show off their pipes in songs like “The Only One”(Cott), “Back in Time” (Lawrence) and “It Hit Me Like a Hammer” (Kurtz).

If, unlike this reviewer, you remember Huey Lewis and The News, you’ll enjoy once again hearing their big hits: “The Power of Love,” “Do You Believe in Love?” “The Heart of Rock & Roll.” But if the band is news to you, it’s news you’ll most likely welcome.

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